Wisdom of the Brain: 5 questions on neuroscience and the helping professions for Dr. Cameron J. Thomas

Research on the frontiers of neuroscience is radically reshaping how we understand the brain and the mind, and changing what we know about learning, memory, social behavior, parenting, decision making, trauma, and our sense of identity. This new information has direct and practical applications for teachers, therapists, nurses, social workers, mediators, life-coaches, HR professionals - indeed, all the "helping professions." But much this new knowledge exists either in the complicated language of science, or in dumbed-down pop-psychology articles that don't go into enough detail or nuance to be truly valuable.

Dr. Cameron Thomas has taken it upon herself to fill this gap in a straightforward yet comprehensive new book, The Wisdom of the Brain. I interviewed her to find out more about how understanding modern brain science can boost the effectiveness of helping professionals:

Question 1: What made you decide to take on this large task of pulling together so much research on the brain into one book?

Answer: One of my jobs is to help people find their own voice; I have served as a mediator in high-conflict family and community situations. Once, while co-mediating a particularly difficult case, it occurred to me that each of the different styles of mediation work in some circumstances, and not others. I began to wonder whether there was something deeper than the social sciences that might better explain human behavior. I turned to neuroscience. It wasn't until I went to the Neuroscience Bootcamp at the University of Pennsylvania though, that I even considered a book. More than half-way through the bootcamp, another student - who also happened to be a mediator - said to me, "Well, there's really nothing in this for us, is there." I understood how he could come to that conclusion but thought if I dug deeper, I would find something of profound value. This book is the product of that effort.

Question 2: What would you say are the three biggest ways in which modern neuroscience has changed our understanding of how the brain works?

Answer: Neuroscience teaches us that the brain is endowed with three special properties. First, it is embodied; the brain lives in and through a body. The brain-body-environment interaction creates the neural pathways through which we take in and act on the world. No single region of the brain is in charge; no single region does a complete function alone. Second, the brain is conservative: it relies on patterns, associations, categories, causal relationships, inferences, and conventions. As a result, humans tend to revert to what's known, to the path of least effort. Third, the brain is emergent. There is no little man at the controls; no thinking or rational brain that overrides an emotional one; no three-tiered brain where one is "lumped" unto another. The brain works together as a whole: complex cognitive functions are possible because of the brain's dispersed and specialized networks that operate through a body, in a context, and where the product emerges.

Question 3: Can you give a few examples how a better understanding of the brain is reshaping the helping professions?

Answer: The brain manages the environment to ensure the organism survives and avoids death. Understanding this helps helping professionals appreciate why people are motivated by needs and desires, and re-act as they do; why clients build a personal story and seek certainty; why people assemble a belief system, search for meaning and purpose, and want to belong. It explains why we recreate situations that we're accustomed to; and how every experience becomes part of our memory and henceforth, influences the present and shapes the future. Understanding neuroscience helps us to understand that parenting literally builds brain networks, and perception is not a direct transmission: the brain creates our perception of, and our experience of, reality. As a consequence, we can - at best - know the experience of another indirectly. Most importantly, the brain and its plasticity teaches us that change is possible, but within reason. Understanding the brain literally impacts every aspect of what helping professionals do every day.

Question 4: You write about the "New Unconscious." What's this about, and how is it important for the helping professions?

Answer: Some of our mental processes are conscious. Others can be brought into conscious awareness, and sometimes are. Most are neither part of, nor accessible to, conscious awareness; they are ever-present but unconscious, and explain a great deal about why we behave as we do. It's estimated that a full 98% of our cognitive functions happen outside conscious awareness. Increasingly, this applies to areas once thought to be possible only through conscious awareness. Studies have found the New Unconscious to include:
• Our ability to read the mental states of others;
• The fact that people are influenced by other's expectations even if they are not aware of them;
• That we automatically mirror other people to get them to like us, and can unconsciously correct for bias; and,
• The fact that our ability to solve problems, enhance performance, and cope affectively can be repeated so often, it becomes automatic.
The expansive influence of the unconscious teaches helping professionals that we can never be neutral - it's a biological impossibility. No mind is free from involuntary and unconscious influences.

Question 5: One of your final chapters is called, "Social Beings, Social Mind" - what are the insights your book provides about human society?

Answer: The book suggests that the brain seeks three "goals": to make sense of the world, to maintain a coherent sense of self, and to sustain a semblance of control at all costs. Culture, too, relies on control...it's why individuals are "equipped" with selves. We are not born with a self. Rather, through our relationships, we are socialized to become some one. Dr. Matthew Lieberman suggests that the self allows the beliefs and values of a particular culture to become our own, without our knowing. It's a form of control that is bolstered and reinforced by the groups we belong to, by how we are trained to read people and experience empathy. He suggests that self-regulation is not done for the sake of the individuals but is the "price of admission" to the culture. It's always good to be on the lookout for how we are controlled - through our repetitive mind patterns, the expectations of others, cultural rituals, and the like. All this points to the primary message of the book: beneath the science - which is important to understand - the brain harbors a certain wisdom that allows us to dive even deeper into our understanding of why humans think and act as we do.

Camaron J. Thomas, Ph.D. is a thinker, a writer, a past public administrator, and a mediator. She is trained in transpersonal psychology, has a Masters from Syracuse University, and a Bachelors in criminal justice. Her background includes teaching integrative yoga and she holds diplomat status in Ayurveda. She has a lifelong interest in individual and organizational change and is currently studying the brain vis-a-vis the power of not knowing.
Find her book at Amazon.com: The Wisdom of the Brain.

Tim Ward is the co-owner of Intermedia Communications Training and co-author of The Master Communicator's Handbook - a resource for experts and thought leaders seeking to create meaningful change.